365-days a year fools

It’s April Fools’ Day, and who better to celebrate it than our federal governors?

To help us prepare for the holiday, The Washington Post ran an article, last week, headlined, “If you’re happy and you know it . . . let the government know,” in which reporter Peter Whorisky informed readers that “the federal government is seeking ways to measure what some have called gross national happiness.”

Gross national happiness?

It’s sorta like gross national product, only, rather than measuring economic activity in dollars and cents, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has convened a panel of economists, psychologists, and other experts to calculate “the squishy realm of feelings.”

“The phrase ‘pursuit of happiness’ is in the Declaration of Independence,” explains panel member Carol Graham, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of The Pursuit of Happiness: An Economy of Well-Being, “so it’s not a huge stretch to say we might want to measure life satisfaction.”

President Obama has embraced the effort and the chair of his Council of Economic Advisers, Alan Krueger, has long been an advocate for developing a national statistic measuring “the flow of emotional experience during daily activities.”

“The idea of the government tallying personal feelings might seem frivolous — or impossibly difficult,” acknowledges The Post. But the stakes are high.

“If successful, these could become official statistics.”

Just what we need: more government statistics. Are you happier already?

The instrumental value of the effort is pretty clear to people in Washington. After all, how can the federal government effectively micromanage every aspect of our lives without reducing our feelings to numbers?

Remember: without statistics, our rulers would be left with only lies and damn lies.

If you thought pursuing happiness was difficult, just try measuring it. As the Post reporter notes, “It can be cumbersome and costly to track a person’s feelings across a day’s time.” But when has cost ever stopped our leaders in Washington from helping us out?

The more serious problem is, as Pogo found, us. For years the jovial folks at Gallup have tracked our sense of personal well-being in their polling. But respondents’ responses are apparently a tad fickle. For instance, Gallup “found that asking political questions before asking about well-being significantly depresses the life satisfaction score.”

I’d call that a leading happiness indicator.

It turns out that gross national product, i.e. wealth, may best indicate gross national happiness. “We demonstrate that richer individuals are more satisfied with their lives, and that this finding holds across 140 countries, and several datasets,” wrote Daniel W. Sacks, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, three researchers from the Wharton School, in a 2010 paper on the subject. “Across each of these countries, the relationship between income and satisfaction is remarkably similar.”

Who would have ever guessed?

Still, we mustn’t throw in the towel or fail to fully fund this most critical research. Our national security may be at stake.

After all, France has a head start, launching a commission in 2008 that boasts two  Nobel Prize winners. As French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced in upping the ante in the happiness race, the “time is ripe for our measurement system to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being.”

Consider mighty Bhutan, the geographically small Himalayan country ruled by the big ideas of King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. Many years ago, he proposed a Gross National Happiness Index and empowered a commission to help finds ways to achieve greater national glee.

Can we allow the United States of America to fall behind?

Let me answer that question paraphrasing Patrick Henry’s famous speech: “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me good numbers measuring happiness or give me death!”

You might think I’m simply telling a tall April Fools’ Day joke. I only wish. Instead, I bring you a tell-tale sign that we’re governed by incredible fools . . . 365 days a year.        references

04/01/2012

This column first appeared at Townhall.com.